I used to have debilitating panic attacks every single day, until one day I just stopped having them. It was literally an overnight thing, they ceased completely because of one simple (or not so simple) thing: acceptance.
When my counselor, Ken, told me the key to conquering his panic attacks 30 years ago, I doubted his method. He said he simply allowed himself to have panic attacks, and because of giving himself that permission, they stopped. Ken’s form of “acceptance” actually came during one of his most brutal panic attacks. He said he was so sick of them and how they had taken over his life that he writhed on the ground and said to himself, to God, to anyone who would listen, “I want this to kill me. I want this panic attack to become so extreme that it kills me me because I can’t do this anymore.” He gave into them and in doing so, they lost their power. I think it was probably only later that he realized his giving in to the anxiety and throwing up a mental white flag was actually acceptance in its early stages.
I had tried a variety of methods to conquer my panic attacks, including Xanax, but nothing worked. This idea of mentally giving myself permission to have a panic attack seemed crazy, but I was out of options. After living in a state of “fight or flight” for several continuous months, I was starting to feel crazy anyway, so why not try crazy to treat crazy? And just as it had worked for Ken thirty years earlier, it worked for me. The next time I felt the familiar foreboding feeling before a panic attack, I said to myself, “go ahead, have a panic attack. It’s been a stressful week and this is your way of dealing with it. Nothing bad will happen, it’s just going to be a little uncomfortable and it will last a little while. Go ahead, have that panic attack, girl!!” And something magical happened–I didn’t have it at all. As quickly as the panicked thoughts and flight or fight symptoms had come, they disappeared and I was left sitting in awe. Where I felt helpless before, I suddenly felt empowered, like I had been given a magic key that could free me from my panic attack shackles.
This method of coping with anxiety proved itself successful over and over again, and still does to this day. Now to be clear, I did not get rid of my anxiety by accepting it, I got rid of panic attacks by accepting my anxiety and the the by-product of severe anxiety, panic attacks. I will always have anxiety, and I am actually fine with that. What I learned is that just because you have anxiety doesn’t mean you have to be anxiety. It doesn’t have to define you and interfere with your daily life or relationships. I have fully embraced my anxious tendencies and even find humor in them! It is because of that that I no longer suffer from my anxiety. In hindsight, the “silly exercises” that Ken was having me do while in therapy were putting me on a path to acceptance. My favorite was when he made me write an essay titled “Why I Love My Anxiety.” I scoffed and said “I don’t, I hate it very much in fact.” He said to write the essay and we’d talk next week, oh the tricky genius he was. Have you heard the saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”? I believe the key to not suffering, regardless of your circumstances, is acceptance.
About a month ago I was suffering from horrible night terrors, ones that would send me running through the house screaming and crying. I was miserable, and it was because of them that I decided to schedule an appointment with the sleep doctors. A few days after scheduling the appointment, I remembered my trick of accepting my panic attacks to stop them and wondered if that could be applied elsewhere.
It was a particularly bad week, I had had night terrors several nights in a row and was really hurting from the lack of sleep, so I decided to give myself permission to have night terrors. I decided to accept them, to no longer fight them. Normally I would go to bed every night praying to not have night terrors and would try to do anything to keep away the monsters in my dreams. That night, I pulled the covers up to my chin and said to myself “it’s okay if you want to have nightmares and night terrors, there is nothing wrong with them. They are a creative expression, they keep things interesting, they are harmless.”
I didn’t have a single night terror that night, and I still haven’t. I have sleep walked once or twice, but they haven’t been scary episodes. Just the normal wandering around, looking for the dog, digging through clothes, you know, the norm. So the acceptance method worked AGAIN. I gave myself permission to continue doing what was ailing me, and it stopped dead in its tracks. As my friend and I said the other day, I think my subconscious has its own consciousness, and is a lot more powerful than I may realize. I believe the same is true for everybody, and fighting what is our current reality (things you are struggling with or your current truth) is only going to make it worse and extend your suffering.
We hear all the time to accept what we cannot change, but I never realized how crucial that can be for quality of life. I never would have believed that acceptance could stop something as difficult and complex as panic attacks, but it did. What do you think you could change in your own life with just a little acceptance? It may surprise you.
Have the life you want by being present to the life you have